Community Service, For Real

News & Politics

Leading a tour of his Mott Haven neighborhood in the South Bronx, 18-year-old Sha-King Graham walks me past an open-air drug corner, the stench of a poultry slaughterhouse, and a weary prostitute leaning against a pay phone. Brown automobile exhaust billows off the expressway onto a concrete planter full of wilted shrubs, bearing a pathetically comic sign: "Gouverneur Morris Park."

And when Sha-King talks, he sounds as if he's reciting every imaginable ill in urban America. "We have the highest rates in the nation of asthma, AIDS, arrests, poverty, and teen pregnancy," he says, the silver stud in his bottom lip bobbing up and down. "We've got em all."

What's more alarming is that, statistically, Sha-King is not exaggerating.

Our destination -- the flip side of these depressing images -- is the headquarters of a community-organizing group called Youth Force. My guide makes his way through the front door of a two-story row house not unlike the offices of any community organization, in any urban neighborhood.

But this is not just any community operation: Led almost entirely by 14-to-25-year-olds, Youth Force recruits the majority of its organizers directly from the juvenile-justice system. In the next two years, more than 1,000 juvenile offenders will be referred to Youth Force from police and family court. Once here, youth referred from court meet a jury of other teenagers, who argue the charges and decide the sentence. Many are sentenced to a stint at community service with Youth Force, but often they stay on as volunteers and staff once they have completed their time.

No Old Heads Here

Two or three girls hover over the office's five computers. Guys in baggy pants dash up the stairs with stacks of paper and memos. A circle of kids in Yankee baseball caps and FUBU shirts hold a strategic planning meeting against a graffiti mural. Street-smart, idealistic and outspoken, these kids confront housing, crime, and educational issues with fervor.

They offer organizing training, provide peer counseling at youth detention centers and to youth on the street, and run a hotline that gives legal assistance to teens who've had problems with police in their schools. Their Street University provides a weekly schedule of activist films, art and music, and reading groups who meet to discuss titles like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The People's History of the United States.

The blank stares you sometimes see on the faces of retail and fast-food workers are noticeably absent in these community organizers, who do all of their work after school and on weekends. The teens protest. They organize. They budget and they raise funds. And they do it with their trademark young, urban attitude. Their slogan: "'Cause Until Youth Act, New York City Won't Change. 'Nuff Said."

Historically Speaking

Youth Force was started in 1994 by 13 South Bronx youths tired of seeing their peers being swallowed by the cycle of gangs, drugs, and jail. "Our motivation also came from our own frustration with the system," says Kim McGillicuddy, one of the founders of the group and, at 34, one of its few elders. "Personally, mine came from [frustrations with] the education system, the health system, and juvenile-justice issues."

The founders wanted to instill in the community's youth the idea that they have the power, the ability and the right to act. "Ever since people have been oppressed, they've been organizing," says McGillicuddy. A long-time resident of the South Bronx, McGillicuddy considers Youth Force part of a larger force shaping history: a national movement of modern youth activism spreading through cities like New York, L.A., Boston, and Chicago, and Philadelphia. "We don't see ourselves as unique," she says.

Nor does McGillicuddy see herself as a spokeswoman for Youth Force. When someone asks to speak to the group's leader, she quickly defers to teen organizers, stressing that this is a youth-led operation.

McGillicuddy and Youth Force are funded in part by The Open Society Institute, a foundation headed by international philanthropist George Soros, which awards Community Fellowships for innovative arts, legal-services, economic-development, education, and health-services projects in Baltimore and New York City. Operating on the premise that "nobody has a monopoly on the truth," Open Society encourages applications from people representing diverse age groups, educational backgrounds and life experiences. Its Fellows have started nonprofit credit unions, launched bilingual community newspapers, and helped deaf people navigate the justice system.

Test-tube Neighborhood

Youth Force's challenge is reinforced by its South Bronx location. Since the 1960s, the neighborhood has served as a national test case for urban America. Sociologists, writers and presidents have come here to diagnose the South Bronx and offer their best solutions. Today, although most residents say the area has improved over the last decade, the South Bronx remains a place that hasn't quite cashed in on the booming economy reflected in the daily headlines.

And, it remains a place where a young person can feel targeted for a run-in with police, according to many youth organizers in the United States who see the criminalization of youth of color as the civil-rights issue of our generation.

Juvenile crime in New York has dropped 28 percent since 1994. Arrests for violent juvenile crimes also are down 24 percent. But, in the past year, the city has expanded its detention facilities by 150 beds. According to Youth Force, it also spent $8 million to reopen two wings of a detention center that officials had promised to turn into a community center. Those serving time in youth jails are disproportionately African American and Latino.

During the construction of new juvenile correction facilities, in 1998, the New York City Police Department took over security in the city's schools. The members of Youth Force say they are regularly stopped and frisked by police for suspicious behavior or bulges in their pockets.

Getting Some Attention

On a Wednesday afternoon in the summer, while most kids in the neighborhood are hanging out, 40 members of Youth Force gather outside a state-of-the-art juvenile detention facility just blocks from their headquarters for a news conference. They've come to school the press about a decline in youth crimes, and to demand incarceration alternatives.

Youth Force demonstrators demand reduced use of detention centers, increased funding for alternatives to incarceration programs, and public hearings on the role of police in public schools. Ultimately they want school safety out of the hands of police and transferred back to schools, principals and teachers.

Giant speakers pump out music mixed on turntables. Tricked-out bikes and souped-up cars provide a backdrop that lets onlookers know this is not just another community group rally. One by one, teens give impassioned speeches through a loudspeaker, in hopes that those on the other side of the brick wall and barbed wire will hear.

Those Hoops Are Messed Up

"Why is the basketball court inside the jail nicer than the one at our school?" asks one teen. "I cried almost everyday I was in there," says another. "I have friends who ended their lives in there." "New York City just spent $8 million to reopen a juvenile facility that they promised to turn into a community center!" shouts another organizer.

A group of savvy Youth Force members deal with the press, and with police who have set up wooden barricades around the protest. One of them, 16-year-old Ciaira Castro, had begun her journey from juvenile detention to community organizing just six months earlier.

Her efforts pay off: The demonstrations pave the way for two meetings between Youth Force members and the New York City Board of Education. The board agrees to work on giving school principals more control than security officers over who is arrested, and to investigate youth complaints of police harassment and violence.

"A lot of people often see youth as trouble-makers," Castro says. "I see youth as people who need help, and who need to have their minds and energy focused for change."

Interested in becoming a New York City Community Fellow? Applications will be available mid-November and proposals are due March 16, 2001.

(c)2000, The Enterprise Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

This article originally appeared in Horizon Magazine.

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